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Podcast: Seeking Justice in Serbia

Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Ilir is joined by family lawyer Praveen Madhiraju and Helsinki Commission senior policy advisor Robert Hand.


"Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America.

Transcript | Episode 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia | Helsinki on the Hill

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  • U.S. Diplomats Rap Astana's Democratization Performance

    As Kazakhstan prepares to assume the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, US diplomats are exerting pressure on Astana to enact promised reforms. Kazakhstan’s laws on media, elections and political parties continue to "fall short of OSCE standards," Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, asserted in written testimony submitted for a hearing October 28 of the US Helsinki Commission. Gordon also pointed out in his testimony that "Kazakhstan has not held an election that the OSCE has deemed fully to have met OSCE commitments and international standards." Both Gordon and Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, called attention to the case of Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights activist convicted in September for vehicular manslaughter. The trial was allegedly marred by procedural violations. Even so, a Kazakhstani judge rejected an appeal of the conviction. The US Helsinki Commission’s chair, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, said the Obama administration and the State Department has given short shrift to human rights, adding that the issue of the OSCE summit in Kazakhstan presented an opportunity for the United States to take a strong stand on human rights.  

  • Advancing U.S. Interests in the OSCE Region

    The hearing examined U.S. policy toward the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the largest regional security organization in the world, ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers to be held in Athens in early December.  Greece held the chairmanship of the 56-nation OSCE focused on enhancing security, promoting economic cooperation, and advancing democracy and human rights in 2009. Kazakhstan assumes the chairmanship in January, 2010. The Commission will examine timely issues, including: security arrangements in Europe, simmering tensions in the Caucasus region, relations with Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union, developments in the Balkans, OSCE engagement on Afghanistan and developments in Central Asia.  The hearing will also assess ongoing efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance and backsliding on fundamental freedoms.

  • The Western Balkans: Policy Responses to Today's Challenges

    This hearing reviewed the Vice President Biden’s meeting in Sarajevo and the Congressional delegation to Bosnia to speak about democratization process in the Balkan states. The Commissioners mentioned the need for governing bodies and systems that include every voice, particularly the ethnic communities in each country. These issues have correlated to potential instability in Bosnia resulting from the gridlock in government there.   The democratization and integration efforts, in relation to the Balkan joining closer to the greater European community and NATO, were touched upon to see the progress made.  The witness discussed examples of initiatives that moved the Balkans towards the goal of international standard of governance, for example the Model Court Initiative in Bosnia, which has helped to institute European standards in 33 local courts, upgrade court infrastructure and improve customer service.

  • Bill Seeks Disclosure of Foreign Payments

    Five US senators have introduced a bill which would require companies with stock traded on US exchanges to report payments to foreign governments for oil, gas, and mineral extraction in their regular Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The measure is designed to prevent governments in countries rich with natural resources from hiding payments they receive from energy and mineral producers to finance corrupt activities, the lawmakers said. “History shows that oil and gas reserves and minerals can be a bane, not a blessing, for poor countries, leading to corruption, wasteful spending, military adventurism, and instability,” said Richard P. Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the bill’s primary sponsor. “Too often, oil money intended for a nation’s poor lines the pockets of the rich or is squandered on showcase projects instead of productive investments,” he continued. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Russell J. Feingold (D-Wis.), Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), and Roger F. Wicker (R-Miss.) cosponsored the measure.

  • Commission Plays Leading Role at Parliamentary Assembly in Lithuania

    By Robert A. Hand, Policy Advisor A bipartisan U.S. delegation traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania June 29 for the 18th Annual Session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The delegation participated fully in the activity of the Assembly’s Standing Committee, the plenary sessions and the Assembly’s three General Committees. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin led the delegation, which included the following commissioners: Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, Ranking Minority Member Chris Smith, and Senator Roger Wicker, Representatives Louise McIntosh Slaughter, Mike McIntyre, G.K. Butterfield and Robert B. Aderholt. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, Senator George Voinovich and Representatives Lloyd Doggett, Madeleine Z. Bordallo and Gwen Moore also joined the delegation. Background of the OSCE PA The Parliamentary Assembly was created within the framework of the OSCE as an independent, consultative body consisting of more than 300 parliamentarians from each of the 56 countries, which stretch from the United States and Canada throughout Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Annual Sessions are the chief venue for debating international issues and voting on a declaration addressing human rights, democratic development, rule of law, economic, environmental and security concerns among the participating States and the international community. The United States delegation is allotted 17 seats in the Assembly. Robust Congressional participation has been a hallmark of the Parliamentary Assembly since its inception nearly 20 years ago, ensuring U.S. interests are raised and discussed. 18th Annual Session This year’s Annual Session, hosted by the Parliament (Seimas) of Lithuania from June 29 to July 3, brought together more than 500 participants from 50 of the 56 OSCE participating States under the theme: “The OSCE: Addressing New Security Challenges.” The Standing Committee -- the Assembly’s leadership body (composed of Heads of Delegations from the participating States and the elected officers) -- met prior to the Annual Session. Senator Cardin, as Head of Delegation and an OSCE PA Vice President, represented the United States. Chaired by the OSCE PA President, Portuguese parliamentarian João Soares, the committee heard reports from the Assembly’s Treasurer, German parliamentarian Hans Reidel, and from the Assembly’s Secretary General, R. Spencer Oliver of the United States. The Assembly continues to operate well within its overall budget guidelines and to receive positive assessments from auditors on financial management. The committee unanimously approved the proposed budget for 2009-2010. The Standing Committee also approved several changes in the OSCE PA’s Rules of Procedure, especially related to gender balance and the holding of elections for officers, as well as 24 Supplementary Items or resolutions for consideration in plenary or committee sessions. The committee brought up as an urgent matter a resolution regarding the detention of Iranian citizens employed by the British Embassy in Tehran. Senator Cardin spoke in support of the resolution. With the Standing Committee’s business concluded, Assembly President Soares opened the Inaugural Plenary Session, stressing in his opening remarks the need for OSCE reform. The first session concluded with a discussion of gender issues led by Swedish parliamentarian Tone Tingsgaard that included comments from Rep. Gwen Moore. A Special Plenary Session the next day was scheduled to accommodate the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who had just presided over an informal meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Corfu, Greece, to launch a new, high-level dialogue on European security. Senator Cardin attended the Corfu meeting as a representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Following her speech, Bakoyannis engaged in a dialogue with parliamentarians on a number of OSCE issues. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas also addressed the special session. Lithuania will chair the OSCE in 2011. U.S. Member Involvement The U.S. delegation actively participated in the work of the Assembly’s three General Committees – the first committee for Political Affairs and Security; the second for Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment; and the third on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. Each committee considered its own draft resolution, prepared by an elected Rapporteur, as well as 23 of the 25 Supplementary Items. Two Supplementary Items, including one by President Soares on Strengthening the OSCE, were considered in plenary session. Representatives Chris Smith, Mike McIntyre, and Gwen Moore each proposed resolutions that were adopted dealing with freedom of expression on the Internet, international cooperation in Afghanistan, and prevention of maternal mortality respectively. Members of the U.S. delegation were also instrumental in garnering support for Supplementary Items introduced by others, co-sponsoring eight resolutions introduced by delegations of other countries. The U.S. delegation was responsible for 26 amendments to either the committee draft resolutions or various Supplementary Items. Chairman Cardin proposed climate-related amendments to a resolution on energy security and suggested the OSCE initiate work with Pakistan in the resolution on Afghanistan. Co-Chairman Hastings worked on numerous human rights and tolerance issues. Other amendments were sponsored by: Sen. Durbin on improving international access to clean water; Sen. Voinovich on combating anti-Semitism; Sen. Wicker on preserving cultural heritage; Rep. Smith on preventing the abuse of children; and Rep. Butterfield on responding to climate change. Bilateral Meetings The U.S. delegation also engaged in a variety of activities associated with the Annual Session, holding bilateral meetings with the delegations of Russia and Georgia focusing on their respective internal political developments and the tension in the Caucasus since Russia invaded Georgia last August and then sought to legitimize breakaway regions. Separate meetings were also held with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and other Lithuanian leaders, at which the delegation pressed for new laws to resolve outstanding claims of property seized during the Nazi and Communist eras. The delegation also presented President Adamkus a letter from President Barack Obama on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the first written reference to Lithuania. Members of the U.S. delegation attended a working lunch to discuss gender issues, hosted by Swedish parliamentarian Tingsgaard. A variety of social events, including a reception hosted by the British delegation at their embassy, afforded numerous informal opportunities to discuss issues of common concern. U.S. Leadership As a demonstration of active U.S. engagement, a Member of the U.S. Congress has always held some elected or appointed leadership role in the OSCE PA. The Vilnius Annual Session has allowed this to continue at least through July 2012. Chairman Cardin was reelected to a three-year term as one of nine Vice Presidents, a very welcome development given his long record of OSCE engagement going back to his years in the House of Representatives. Rep. Aderholt, who has attended every OSCE PA Annual Session since 2002 and often visits European countries to press human rights issues, was elected Vice Chair of the third General Committee, which handles democracy and human rights. President Soares was reelected for a second term and selected Rep. Smith to serve as a Special Representative on Human Trafficking and asked Co-Chairman Hastings to continue serving as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs. An unfortunate development in the election of new officers is the absence of a representative of the Russian Federation. Because the United States government may disagree so substantively with current Kremlin policies, the U.S. government has always felt it critical to welcome Russian engagement in the OSCE PA. It was, therefore, a disappointment that the head of the Russian Federation delegation, Alexander Kozlovsky, reversed course and decided not to run for a Vice Presidency seat and more disappointing that a political bloc at the OSCE PA defeated Russian incumbent Natalia Karpovich as rapporteur of the Third Committee. Karpovich had been accommodating of U.S. human rights initiatives in her draft resolution. Vilnius Declaration Participants at the closing plenary session adopted the final Vilnius Declaration -- a lengthy document which reflects the initiatives and input of the U.S. delegation. Among other things, the declaration calls for strengthening the OSCE in order to enhance its legitimacy and political relevance; addresses conventional arms control, disarmament and other security-related issues of current concern in Europe; calls for greater cooperation in the energy sector and better protection of the environment; and stresses the continued importance of democratic development and respect for human rights, especially as they relate to tolerance in society and freedom of expression. The most contentious part of the declaration related to the promotion of human rights and civil liberties twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which included language noting the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. While some of the language may have been provocative, strong Russian objections to the entire text appeared to be motivated by a desire to defend a Stalinist past and minimize its crimes. The Russian delegation’s effort to block passage of this resolution reflects a similar sentiment in Moscow that recently led to the creation of a widely-criticized commission "for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests." As a July 9 column for The Economist noted about recent Russian efforts to excuse Stalinism, the “debate in Vilnius makes it a bit harder to maintain that stance.” Some of Russia’s traditional friends and allies in the OSCE PA were noticeably absent from the debate. The Balkans While the Congressional delegation’s work focused heavily on representing the United States at the OSCE PA, the trip afforded an opportunity to advance U.S. interests elsewhere in Europe. While Co-Chairman Hastings traveled to Albania to observe that country’s first parliamentary elections since becoming a NATO member earlier this year, the rest of the delegation visited Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still recovering from the conflict in the 1990s and the associated horrors of the Srebrenica genocide and massive ethnic cleansing. The reverberations of the conflict continue to hinder prospects for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The United States was instrumental in bringing the Bosnian conflict to an end in 1995, especially with the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement, and the United States has invested considerable financial, diplomatic and military resources in the post-conflict period. The visit came one month after Vice President Joe Biden visited Sarajevo with a message of renewed U.S. engagement in the Balkans. While meetings with Bosnian political leaders revealed little willingness to work constructively toward constitutional reform needed for an effective central government, a meeting with English-speaking university students revealed a refreshing desire to overcome ethnic divisions and move the country forward. Belarus Given its proximity to Vilnius, members of the Congressional delegation visited Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to press for greater democracy and respect for human rights in that country. Belarus has remained a repressive state over the years even as its European neighbors have transitioned from being former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states to EU and NATO members or aspirants. Following a delegation meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka, Belarusian authorities released imprisoned American Emanuel Zeltzer, who was convicted of espionage in a closed trial and had numerous health concerns. The delegation also urged for greater progress in meeting the conditions in the Belarus Democracy Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004 and reauthorized in 2006. A meeting with political activists provided useful information on the situation for political opposition, non-governmental organizations and independent media. Finally, the delegation pressed Belarus’ officials to allow for an increased U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. In response to expanding U.S. sanctions, Minsk kicked out 30 diplomats last year, including the U.S. ambassador, leaving a staff of five at the U.S. Embassy. During the course of the Vilnius Annual Session, Senator Voinovich also broke away for a brief visit to Riga, Latvia. That visit was among the highest level visits from a U.S. official in three years, and was important for our relations with this NATO ally, which has deployed troops with Americans in Afghanistan without caveat and recently suffered losses which easily impact such a small country. U.S. interests abroad are advanced through active congressional participation in the OSCE PA. The 19th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be held early next July in Oslo, Norway.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Murder of Russian Human Rights Activist Natalya Estemirova

    Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) and Ranking Republican Members Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) issued the following statements today upon learning of the killing of Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. “I am saddened and outraged by the kidnapping and killing of Natalya Estemirova, one of the region’s great defenders of human rights. The reports of her abduction in Chechnya and subsequent shooting in the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia remind us of the urgent need to address human rights concerns throughout Russia. President Medvedev’s condemnation of this murder and his pledge to ‘take all necessary measures’ to solve the crime are welcomed, but his words must translate into a prompt and complete criminal investigation by federal authorities that brings those responsible to justice,” said Chairman Cardin. “I agree with what President Obama recently said in Moscow that history has shown ‘governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve their own power do not.’ Murder and intimidation of activists and journalists is both a serious violation of human rights and an affront to any democracy.” “In 2006, Ms. Estemirova met with the staff of the Helsinki Commission as part of our work to shine a light on the abuses in Chechnya. Lawlessness and violence too often define the lives of journalists and activists who are simply pushing the cause of freedom.” said Co-Chairman Hastings. “Ms. Estemirova led a courageous life of denouncing corruption, calling for a fair judicial system, and standing up for human rights. While her killers may have ended her life, they will never silence the voice she brought to these issues.” “President Medvedev has talked about the legal nihilism rampant in his country and has made positive gestures in the direction of reform, yet these killings continue. It is time to see real action and real reform regarding the rule of law and respect for human rights in Russia. The death of Natalya Estemirova must not be in vain,” said Senator Brownback. “Natalya Estemirova gave her life and now her death in the service to the cause of human suffering and justice,” said Congressman Smith, who authored a resolution that passed the House in 2007 to address the large number of unsolved murders of investigative journalists in Russia. “Being a human rights activist or an independent journalist in Russia has become among the most dangerous professions in the world. The Russian government needs to create an environment in which the flagrant slaughter of human rights activists is unacceptable.” The Helsinki Commission has held many hearings and briefings on Russia’s human rights record, including one recently focusing on the North Caucasus.

  • The Medvedev Thaw: Is It Real? Will It Last?

    This hearing discussed U.S. foreign policy towards Russia, focusing on how to improve relations while taking Russia’s compliance with human rights seriously.   The witnesses and Commissioners discussed the implications of Dmitri Medvedev becoming president and Vladimir Putin retaining power as Prime Minister.

  • The Western Balkans: Challenges for U.S. and European Engagement

    This hearing discussed the recent progress of the seven countries of the Western Balkans with regards to internal stability, democratic development, minority rights, anti-corruption efforts, and the rule of law. The witnesses evaluated each country’s progress and that of the region as a whole. In addition, the hearing also focused on the on the election process in each country and whether they had met the OSCE standards for elections.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Examine Impact of International Efforts in Kosovo on Human Rights

    By Clifford Bond and Robert Hand Helsinki Commission Staff In early December 2008, Helsinki Commission staff visited Kosovo to review the changing mandates of a wide range of international actors in Kosovo. The visit coincided with the European Union’s deployment of a Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, known as EULEX, which took place successfully but revealed the potential for regional instability. The Commission staff delegation met with a variety of international and local actors in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. It traveled to the Visoki Decani, a monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church where it met with church representatives, and to the nearby town of Peja/Pec where it met with field representatives of the International Civilian Office (ICO) and the OSCE. The delegation also visited both sides of the divided northern city of Mitrovica where it visited displacement camps and the rebuilt neighborhood for the city’s Romani population in addition to other meetings. The International Community Kosovo asserted its independent statehood in February 2008, in the context of the plan put forward by former Finnish President, UN official, and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari. In so doing, Kosovo’s leadership pledged to implement the plan in full, which means accepting international supervision and providing decentralized authority and numerous rights and privileges to the Serb and, to a lesser extent, other minority communities. The Ahtisaari plan, however, assumes agreement by all parties, but Serbia, backed by Russia at the United Nations, refuses to accept the loss of what it considers still to be its province. The United States and most European countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but a few European Union members remain either reluctant or strongly against doing so, either due to ties with Serbia or fear of separatist movements within their own borders. Spain was frequently singled out as the one country that not only opposes Kosovo’s independence but seems intent on undermining its recognition by others. Combined with the widespread need for consensus decision-making, most of the international community’s field missions must, to one degree or another, act neutrally on questions of status, to the detriment of their effectiveness and the enormous frustration of Kosovar Albanians who desire that Kosovo’s independence be respected. The EULEX deployment brought these differing perspectives to the fore. In order to obtain an EU-wide agreement, a UN blessing and the acquiescence of Belgrade and local Serbs under Belgrade’s control, a compromise effort known as the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s “6-point plan” was put forward that prompted angry protest among the Kosovar Albanian majority and an official rejection from Pristina. Posters throughout the city proclaimed EULEX to be “Made in Serbia”. After several delays and despite continued ambiguity regarding which government was the actual host, the Mission deployed on December 9 throughout Kosovo, not just in areas under Pristina’s control. That the deployment proceeded smoothly and peacefully was viewed as a success, although ambiguities purposefully placed in its mandate to allow both Albanians and Serbs to maintain their positions, as well as the lack of political oversight and coordination among EULEX’s three areas of responsibility (police, courts and customs), likely mean that EULEX will face additional tests of its resolve in the future. For now, the most noteworthy result of the deployment is the anticipated end of inefficient UNMiK operations, which have come to symbolize the holding pattern in which Kosovo has found itself since 1999. The deployment could also signal a more cooperative tone among Kosovo’s Serbs. In northern Mitrovica and contiguous areas bordering Serbia, there are signs that Belgrade may no longer support more militant and corrupt Kosovo Serb leaders. In the enclaves to the south, where the majority of Kosovo Serbs live, there may also be more room for local accommodation and inter-ethnic cooperation, with questions of status put to the side. Following Serbian elections in May that strengthened pro-democratic and pro-European forces in society, Belgrade seems to want at least more transparency and accountability in the “parallel institutions” it has so far financed, and it may try to reduce its subsidies. It also seems to want to avoid violence, especially any violence that could be blamed on the Serb side. It is unclear how far it will push to assert control and responsibility in light of UNMiK’s dwindling role, or whether it will allow EULEX and eventually the ICO to fill the void. Unfortunately, divisions within the European Union almost invite continued Serbian intransigence. Without being given a clear choice between trying to hold onto Kosovo and achieving European integration, the Serbian Government still plays the “Kosovo card,” which garners popular support at home without any apparent repercussions. The situation on the Kosovar Albanian side is a bit clearer. Despite internal political posturing, there is really little difference within this community when it comes to defending Kosovo’s independence. The deliberations that led the EULEX deployment pushed the Kosovo government about as far as it could go. While the achievement of independence has so far made the Ahtisaari plan worth embracing, many of its provisions relating to Serb communities have been no easy sell, especially in the many localities where nationalism and intolerance continue to prevail. When governments of European countries which have recognized Kosovo’s independence nevertheless treat it as something less than an independent and sovereign state, the Kosovars are naturally outraged and increasingly distrustful. This could be countered somewhat by the establishment of embassies in the capitals of those countries who have thus far recognized Kosovo, particularly in Europe, staffed by competent diplomats in order to ensure that the Kosovo point-of-view is made clear to policy-makers. The United States should also counter European diplomatic tendencies to placate traditional regional powers and treat the new states of Europe as second-class states. In the meantime, as those in government may try to adhere to their Ahtisaari commitments, those in opposition have also been able to capitalize on the situation. This poses a challenge to Kosovo’s shaky democratic institutions, which are still very much in transition. Some have expressed concern that the further development of democratic capacities could be thwarted by the need to meet unpopular international demands. While EULEX moves forward and UNMiK winds down, other international players need to find their role. As one analyst commented, the international community has lost the coherence of its structure and has become a confusing maze to local parties. The International Civilian Office is perhaps the most important, yet vulnerable, of the current players. A creation of the Ahtisaari plan, it is by definition not status neutral, and has a relatively strong mandate to supervise post-status Kosovo. Serb opposition to cooperation with the ICO makes this difficult, but the hesitancy of the status-neutral players to cooperate, coordinate and support the ICO will severely weaken its effectiveness to Kosovo’s long-term detriment. The OSCE Mission in Kosovo, the organization’s largest, is facing even more difficult times. Once known for its solid monitoring of events throughout Kosovo and for developing democratic capacity, the early threat of Belgrade and Moscow to close the Mission cast a shadow over its future and a considerable portion of its personnel have moved to the ICO or otherwise left the OSCE in Kosovo. Mission leadership has also been controversial; while this may have stabilized with a new Head of Mission, the OSCE lost some serious ground. Most interlocutors felt that the Mission is a bit oversized, and needs to focus on core areas such as promoting free media, human rights and inter-ethnic dialogue, where the OSCE has genuine expertise and credibility. KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, seems to be the one constant of the international presence that garners unquestioned respect and seems prepared to handle whatever instability may lie ahead. It is the acknowledged last resort for providing security, but its presence helps ensure a security baseline that will deter provocations and enhance confidence at the local level. KFOR representatives seem confident that lessons were learned from the violence of 2004 and that greater flexibility across lines of operations, more consistent rules for engagement and an unwillingness to let the particulars of status from getting in its way will be effective in keeping the peace in Kosovo. A Need for Dialogue Many of the problems which exist among both the Kosovar Albanian majority and the Kosovo Serb minority could be resolved through greater dialogue, both within Kosovo and between Belgrade and Pristina. There is some effort to achieve this through civic organizations and religious institutions, as well as business contacts. There is also some interaction in technical areas such as regarding missing persons from the 1998-99 conflict, or in the reconstruction of churches and other religious sites damaged or destroyed in the March 2004 riots. Unfortunately, a suitable venue for direct contact between Belgrade and Pristina needs to be found. Pristina is ready, at least in principle, but Belgrade is not. One area where the Kosovo authorities could act more swiftly, without precondition, and likely to their own long-term benefit, is the resolution of outstanding property claims. The resolution of property claims is a major hindrance to the return of displaced persons, and it holds up legal usage of property even when a return is unlikely. In some cases at least, displaced Serbs and others may only wish to get their property back so they can sell it. While there may be solid reasons for wanting to encourage displaced persons to return to Kosovo -- and some efforts to do this were underway in December – ultimately each individual needs only the opportunity to make a free choice. To do this, those with outstanding property claims need to have their cases resolved. The issue of property claims came up repeatedly in meetings, and seems a greater issue than security and freedom of movement at present. Some hope the EULEX deployment could provide a second chance for property restitutions and returns. Both sides, but especially some Kosovo leaders who formerly fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), could probably also help facilitate the resolution of more missing persons cases, of which just under 2,000 remain. While there has been success in bringing government representatives and surviving family members together under international auspices, local efforts to help locate grave sites appear to be half-hearted, at best. It is unlikely that progress in this area will enhance community reconciliation efforts in any major way, but a positive signal to do more could lead to a broadening of dialogue on other issues. Ultimately, this remains a humanitarian issue that deserves additional effort no matter what. At present, Kosovo authorities seem committed to implementing the Ahtsaari plan in its entirety. Relevant laws have been passed, and those involved in developing local self-government seem committed to implementation. The real test, of course, will come when the Kosovo Serbs decide to respond and engage and are able to do so without worry of retribution from Belgrade. One local analyst noted that developing the necessary trust between the two sides will be a process, and should be taken one step at a time rather than pushed. The Plight of Roma in the North A continual concern to the Helsinki Commission has been the plight of displaced Roma in northern Mitrovica, most of whom fled their original neighborhood, or mahalla, which was destroyed in 1999. Growing criticism of the conditions in the camps, particularly the health hazards caused by lead contamination, finally convinced the international community in 2005 first to establish a temporary relocation facility that was safer and to make a concentrated effort to rebuild housing where the original mahalla in the south was located. Romani families resisted the move, due to warranted lack of trust in the international community and a lack of awareness of how severe the health threat really was. Local Serbian leaders as well as Romani community leaders living elsewhere in Europe, however, originally also did much to discourage the move, both benefiting from a situation in which successful returns did not take place. Commission staff visited the last of the original camps, Cesmin Lug, as well as the new camp adjacent to it, a former KFOR base known as Osterode. They also visited the original mahalla, which had additional apartment buildings and some private houses constructed since the last Commission visit in May 2007. Despite the availability of housing, residents of the camps continue to resist moving, despite continued concerns about health conditions. Local Serbian leaders, who now want the land where Osterode is located, seem no longer to be discouraging the move, and Roma living abroad likewise seem to have less influence on the situation. Security for Roma in the south, once a concern, seems less so now. Those who remain in the camps seem primarily motivated by a continued distrust of the international community as well as lingering hopes for a better offer. The inability of the local economy to provide income, particularly in the south, also plays a significant role, as does the desire to keep children in Serb-run schools, despite being segregated into separate classes. Meanwhile, there is increasing pressure from foreign governments to prioritize the resettling of Kosovo Roma they intend to deport, rather than those displaced in Kosovo and living in camps. It is clear that, while there has been some progress on this issue, a limited set of additional options will need to be considered to resolve the situation, including the possibility of permanent resettlement in the north.

  • Turkmenistan: Prospect for Change?

    The purpose of this hearing was to examine Turkmenistan’s parliamentary elections- the first such election since the regime changed. The hearing focused on whether the election might mark a turning point at all for Turkmenistan as well as whether Turkmenistan has made progress on Democratic reforms. Positive signs were reviewed, particularly on education, but also areas of concern, such as reports of Turkmen officials pressuring young men not to apply for study programs in the United States. The distinguished witnesses and Commissioners reviewed the reform process and the significant advancements since the death of longtime President, Berdimuhamedov. In regards to areas of further reform and advancement, the hearing addressed measures in which the U.S. and the OSCE should respond to better the human rights condition in Turkmenistan.

  • Georgia Rebuilds: After the August Conflict with Russia, Political and Economic Challenges Remain

    By Shelly Han, Winsome Packer, and Kyle Parker From October 14-18, Commission staff traveled to Georgia to assess recovery efforts following the conflict with Russia in early August. Through a series of meetings with Georgian officials, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, the U.S. embassy, as well as private companies, Georgian citizens, human rights groups, local and foreign analysts, and non-governmental organizations, the staff learned that tremendous progress has been made in restoring critical infrastructure and returning many internally displaced persons to their homes. However, the political and economic situation in Georgia remains fragile. While the origins of the conflict that began on August 7 are still being debated, what is clear is the tremendous cost politically, economically and socially to Georgia. Human Rights Watch, one of the few NGOs that gained access to South Ossetia immediately after the conflict, estimates that 95 percent of Georgian villages in South Ossetia were razed, and an untold number of houses have been looted and burned. South Ossetians told HRW that the burning of houses was deliberate in order to prevent the return of Georgians. HRW estimates that most of the damage was done by South Ossetian irregulars or foreign “volunteers” - not Russian troops. Russian troops had effective control of the territory but chose not to enforce law and order, making them complicit in these crimes. HRW was not able to corroborate any of the Russian allegations of Georgian atrocities inside South Ossetia, though it has accused Tbilisi of using cluster bombs. HRW has documented instances of excessive use of force by Georgian troops, but is still sorting out the facts surrounding these actions. International Monitoring Efforts Lack Access, Coordination Both the OSCE and the European Union have deployed monitors to Georgia, but have not been granted access to South Ossetia. Representatives of the EU Monitoring Mission to Georgia told Helsinki Commission staff that the monitors were unarmed and not there to provide security. Rather, their stated mission was to observe Georgian and Russian compliance with the August 12 and September 8 peace agreements between Russia and Georgia. There also seemed to be little effort to coordinate the two observation missions. Both the EU and OSCE representatives downplayed questions about a lack of coordination (as reported in Vienna by the OSCE Head of Mission in Georgia). They said that it was a matter of time and process dictating how they proceeded. Economic Cost of Conflict The economic consequences of the conflict for Georgia have been staggering. One of the keys to recovery will be boosting consumer confidence, and also reassuring investors that Georgia is a safe and stable market. Almost 24 percent of Georgia’s GDP comes from foreign direct investment (Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are significant investors) and there are signs that FDI may decrease following the conflict. Out of a pledged $1 billion in aid, the United States is providing $250 million in direct budget support to the Georgian government to help repair infrastructure and build houses for IDPs. Other donors have agreed to provide a further $3.5 billion in aid which, if distributed properly, will help Georgia weather the crisis. Commission staff visited the Black Sea port of Poti. Georgia’s main transit point for imports and exports, the port was bombed during the conflict, resulting in the death of 5 workers and an estimated US$10 million in damages. But by mid-October, commerce was almost back to normal. Georgia’s Coast Guard offices, which had been substantially damaged, were almost completely repaired. The Navy and the Coast Guard lost eight ships during the conflict, but their newer ships were evacuated to the southern port of Batumi and escaped with only minor damage. One of the hardest hit regions was the area surrounding the city of Gori, Georgia’s “breadbasket,” where up to 60 percent of the agriculture was destroyed. The U.S. Agency for International Development is spearheading a wheat seed program to help farmers plant the next crop. Irrigation is also a significant issue, since much of the water was coming from South Ossetia and irrigation canals were damaged. Alternative irrigation sources were being quickly developed to help farmers continue supplying the market. The OSCE, which was implementing extensive economic development projects in South Ossetia, has been forced to cease all programs in that region. Other micro-enterprise development programs, such as trout farms and beekeeping located in the buffer zones around South Ossetia, have been quickly re-started. Another issue that could become a flash-point in the future is the Inguri Dam, a hydroelectric facility that supplies half of Georgia’s electricity needs. The dam itself is on territory that the Georgian government controls, but the facility that provides the electricity is on territory controlled by Abkhaz separatists and their Russian allies. They could theoretically turn off the electricity for many Georgians, but Georgian authorities could counter by shutting down the dam, thus denying the Abkhaz the ability to generate electricity. Cost of Conflict is High for those Displaced from their Homes The situation for internally displaced persons in Georgia is critical. On October 9 Commission staff visited an IDP camp in Gori that was slated to be dismantled later that day. Most of the residents were being returned to their homes in the “buffer zone” adjacent to the South Ossetian border that up until the day prior had been controlled by Russian forces. As the Russians withdrew, the Georgian government was working quickly to return the IDPs to their homes. In fact, international aid agencies believed Tbilisi was moving a bit too quickly, as safety concerns remained – specifically, unexploded ordinance in the buffer zone and reports of possible sabotage. Nevertheless, the IDPs were packing up their meager belongings and preparing to leave. Those who couldn’t do so - those from South Ossetia and Akhalgori - were going to be sent to centers in the Tbilisi area. A number of aid agencies are providing assistance with food and other daily needs. One group, CHF International, provides assistance to IDPs that are living with relatives. These host families - many of whom were barely making ends meet - are stretched to the breaking point. CHF International provides fuel, extra bedding, food, or other aid that a household might need to support extra family members for an extended period of time. The Georgian government has also launched a massive construction effort to build thousands of houses for the “new” IDPs. While this effort was praised by many, it could become a source of discontent among those displaced in previous conflicts and still living in substandard conditions. Georgia Faces a Difficult Road Ahead The effectiveness of international monitoring as a deterrent to future military conflict in Georgia is uncertain. It is clear from discussions with analysts that disagreements on the delineation of the South Ossetian “border,” particularly around the city of Akhalgori, will continue to be a point of contention. As more information becomes available on what actually happened in the lead-up to the conflict in early August, it also raises questions about the effectiveness of these missions as a deterrent. Independent reports suggest that there were nearly 100,000 Russian troops in the vicinity of South Ossetia immediately preceding the fighting and it is now clear that there was a serious breakdown of early warning mechanisms that were designed to prevent this type of conflict scenario. The exact role of the monitors and their geographical range is in dispute. Russian officials continue to argue at the OSCE and other fora that the monitors are there to ensure stability and security. At the same time Russian officials are charging that the EU monitors are failing to maintain adequate security in the areas bordering South Ossetia and Abkhazia and that Georgian military and police forces are engaged in provocations and attacks against South Ossetians and Russian personnel inside South Ossetia. Ironically, the OSCE and EU Missions reported that their monitors still did not have access to South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Akhalgori district (now administered by Russian and South Ossetian forces). This raises concerns about Russia’s intent in denying monitors access to the regions now under their control, while demanding that the monitors ensure security in these areas. Russo-Georgian relations, which have been tense for years, have reached a nadir in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia and subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made no attempt to conceal from U.S. Secretary of State Rice that getting rid of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was a key Moscow aim. As of this writing, however, he remains in office, despite Moscow’s efforts to unseat him and attempts by opposition forces to call him to account. He has so far weathered the political consequences of presiding over a stunning military defeat, the loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and having to deal with thousands more displaced people. Responding to pressure from inside and outside the country, Saakashvili has pledged to introduce serious reforms, which would help promote stability within Georgia. How Tbilisi can reestablish normal relations with Moscow is harder to divine.

  • 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    The OSCE’s 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting offered an opportunity to review compliance on a full range of human rights and humanitarian commitments of the organization’s participating States. Tolerance issues featured prominently in the discussions, which included calls for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. A U.S. proposal for a high-level conference on tolerance issues in 2009, however, met with only tepid support. Core human rights issues, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, continued to draw large numbers of speakers. Throughout the discussions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern about Kazakhstan’s failure to implement promised reforms and questioned its readiness to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010. Greece, slated to assume the chairmanship in January, came under criticism for its treatment of ethnic minorities. As in the past, the United State faced criticism for retaining the death penalty and for its conduct in counter-terrorism operations. Belarusian elections, held on the eve of the HDIM, came in for a round of criticism, while Russia continued to advocate proposals on election observation that would significantly limit the OSCE’s independence in such activities. Finally, discussion of the Russia-Georgia conflict was conspicuous by its near absence, though related human rights and humanitarian concerns will likely receive more prominence in the lead up to and during the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki. Background From September 29 to October 10, 2008, the OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual(1) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is Europe’s largest human rights gathering, convened to discuss compliance by the participating States with the full range of human dimension commitments they have all adopted by consensus. The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), according to an agenda approved by consensus of all 56 participating States. The HDIM is the only multinational human rights meeting in Europe where representatives of NGOs and government representatives have equal access to the speakers list. Indeed, over half of the statements delivered at this year’s HDIM were made by NGO representatives. Such implementation review meetings are intended to serve as the participating States’ principal venue for public diplomacy and are important vehicles for identifying continued areas of poor human rights performance. Although the HDIM is not tasked with decision-making responsibilities, the meetings can provide impetus for further focus on particular human dimension concerns and help shape priorities for subsequent action. Coming in advance of ministerial meetings that are usually held in December, the HDIMs provide an additional opportunity for consultations among the participating States on human dimension issues that may be addressed by Ministers. (This year, for example, there were discussions on the margins regarding a possible Ministerial resolution on equal access to education for Roma and advancing work in the field of tolerance and non-discrimination, including the possibility of convening a related high-level meeting in 2009.) OSCE rules, adopted by consensus, allow NGOs to have access to human dimension meetings. However, this general rule does not apply to “persons and organizations which resort to the use of violence or publicly condone terrorism or the use of violence.”(2) There are no other grounds for exclusion. The decision as to whether or not a particular individual or NGO runs afoul of this rule is made by the Chairman-in-Office. In recent years, some governments have tried to limit or restrict NGO access at OSCE meetings in an effort to avoid scrutiny and criticism of their records. This year, in the run up to the HDIM, Turkmenistan held the draft agenda for the meeting hostage, refusing to give consensus as part of an effort to block the registration of Turkmenistan NGOs which have previously attended the implementation meetings and criticized Ashgabat. Turkmenistan officials finally relented and allowed the adoption of the HDIM agenda in late July, but did not participate in the Warsaw meeting. Along these lines, the Russian delegation walked out in protest when the NGO “Russian-Chechen Friendship Society” took the floor to speak during a session on freedom of the media. At the 2008 HDIM, senior Department of State participants included Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, Head of Delegation; Ambassador Julie Finley, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Karen Stewart, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and Mr. Bruce Turner, Acting Director, Office for European Security and Political Affairs. Mr. Will Inboden, advisor on religious freedom issues, and Mr. Nathan Mick, advisor on Roma issues, served as Public Members. Ms. Felice Gaer, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, and Mr. Michael Cromartie, Vice Chair, also served as members of the delegation. Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Fred L. Turner and Senior State Department Advisor Ambassador Clifford Bond also served as members of the U.S. Delegation, along with Helsinki Commission staff members Alex T. Johnson, Ronald J. McNamara, Winsome Packer, Erika B. Schlager, and Dr. Mischa E. Thompson. In comparison with previous HDIMs, the 2008 meeting was relatively subdued – perhaps surprisingly so given that, roughly eight weeks before its opening, Russian tanks had rolled onto Georgian territory. While the full scope of human rights abuses were not known by the time the meeting opened, human rights defenders had already documented serious rights violations, including the targeting of villages in South Ossetia inhabited by ethnic Georgians. Nevertheless, discussion of the Russian-Georgian conflict was largely conspicuous by its near absence. Highlights The annual HDIM agenda provides a soup-to-nuts review of the implementation of core human rights and fundamental freedoms (e.g., freedoms of speech, assembly and association; prevention of torture; right to a fair trial), as well as rule of law, free elections and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, tolerance and non-discrimination are also on the agenda. The United States continued its longstanding practice of naming specific countries and cases of concern. In accordance with OSCE procedures, the agenda included three specially selected topics, each of which was given a full day of review. This year, those subjects were: 1) education and awareness-raising in the promotion of human rights; 2) freedom of religion or belief; and 3) focus on identification, assistance and access to justice for the victims of trafficking. Of the three, the sessions on religious liberty attracted the most speakers with over 50 statements. A large number of side events were also part of the HDIM, organized by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions or offices, other international organizations, or participating States. These side events augment implementation review sessions by providing an opportunity to examine specific subjects or countries in greater depth and often with a more lively exchange than in the formal sessions. Along with active participation at these side events, the United States held extensive bilateral meetings with government representatives, as well as with OSCE officials and NGO representatives. At the end of the second week of the HDIM, Human Rights Directors from capitals also held a working meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern, with a special focus on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security. This year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also hosted a reception to honor the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as well as the tenth anniversary of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act and the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Greece, scheduled to assume the chairmanship of the OSCE starting in January 2009, came under particular criticism for its treatment of minorities. Unlike the highly emotional reactions of senior Greek diplomats in Warsaw two years ago, the delegation this year responded to critics by circulating position papers elaborating the Greek government’s views. Greece also responded to U.S. criticism regarding the application of Sharia law to Muslim women in Thrace by stating that Greece is prepared to abolish the application of the Sharia law to members of the Muslim minority in Thrace when this is requested by the interested parties whom it affects directly. Issues relating to the treatment of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities in the OSCE region are likely to remain an important OSCE focus in the coming period, especially in light of developments in the Caucasus, and it remains to be seen how the Greek chairmanship will address these concerns in light of its own rigid approach to minorities in its domestic policies. Throughout the HDIM, many NGOs continued to express concern about the fitness of Kazakhstan to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010 given serious short comings in that country’s human rights record. In particular, Kazakhstan was sharply criticized for a draft religion law (passed by parliament, but not yet adopted into law). One NGO argued that a Kazakhstan chairmanship, with this law in place, would undermine the integrity of the OSCE, and urged participating States to reconsider Kazakhstan for the 2010 leadership position if the law is enacted. Juxtaposing Kazakhstan’s future chairmanship with the possible final passage of a retrograde law on religion, the Almaty Helsinki Committee asked the assembled representatives, “Are human rights still a priority – or not?” (Meanwhile, on October 5, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kazakhstan.) On the eve of the HDIM, Belarus held elections. Those elections received considerable critical attention during the HDIM’s focus on democratic elections, with the United States and numerous others expressing disappointment that the elections did not meet OSCE commitments, despite promises by senior Belarusian officials that improvements would be forthcoming. Norway and several other speakers voiced particular concern over pressures being placed on ODIHR to circumscribe its election observation activities. Illustrating those pressures, the Russian Federation reiterated elements of a proposal it drafted on election observation that would significantly limit the independence of ODIHR in its election observation work. The Head of the U.S. Delegation noted that an invitation for the OSCE to observe the November elections in the United States was issued early and without conditions as to the size or scope of the observation. (Russia and others have attempted to impose numerical and other limitations on election observation missions undertaken by the ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.) Tolerance issues featured prominently during discussions this year, as they have at other recent HDIMs. Forty-three interventions were made, forcing the moderator to close the speakers list and requiring presenters to truncate their remarks. Muslim, migrant, and other groups representing visible minorities focused on discrimination in immigration policies, employment, housing, and other sectors, including racial profiling and hate crimes, amidst calls for OSCE countries to improve implementation of existing anti-discrimination laws. Jewish and other NGOs called for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Representatives of religious communities expressed concern about the confusion made by ODIHR in its Annual Hate Crimes Report between religious liberty issues and intolerance towards members of religious groups. This year, some governments and NGOs elevated their concerns relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, increasingly placing these concerns in the context of the OSCE’s focus on hate crimes. A civil society tolerance pre-HDIM meeting and numerous side events were held on a broad range of tolerance-related topics. The United States and several U.S.-based NGOS called for a high-level conference on tolerance issues to be held in 2009. Unlike in prior years, however, no other State echoed this proposal or stepped forward with an offer to host such a high-level conference. In many of the formal implementation review sessions this year, NGOs made reference to specific decisions of the European Court on Human Rights, urging governments to implement judgments handed down in recent cases. During the discussion of issues relating to Roma, NGOs continued to place a strong focus on the situation in Italy, where Roma (and immigrants) have been the target of hate crimes and mob violence. NGOs reminded Italy that, at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in July, they had urged Italy to come to the HDIM with concrete information regarding the prosecution of individuals for violent attacks against Roma. Regrettably, the Italian delegation was unable to provide any information on prosecutions, fostering the impression that a climate of impunity persists in Italy. As at other OSCE fora, the United States was criticized for retaining the death penalty, contrary to the abolitionist trend among the OSCE participating States. Of the 56 OSCE participating States, 54 have abolished, suspended or imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and only two – the United States and Belarus – continue to impose capital punishment as a criminal sanction. Two side events held during the HDIM also put a spotlight on the United States. The first event was organized by Freedom House and entitled, “Today’s American: How Free?” At this event, Freedom House released a book by the same title which examined “the state of freedom and justice in post-9/11 America.” The second event was a panel discussion on “War on Terror or War on Human Rights?” organized by the American Civil Liberties Union. Speakers from the ACLU, Amnesty International and the Polish Human Rights Foundation largely focused on issues relating to the United States, including the military commission trials at Guantanamo, and official Polish investigations into allegations that Poland (working with the United States) was involved in providing secret prisons for the detention and torture of “high-value” detainees.(3) In a somewhat novel development, Russian Government views were echoed by several like-minded NGOs which raised issues ranging from claims of “genocide” by Georgia in South Ossetia to grievances by ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia. Ironically, the Russian delegation, in its closing statement, asserted that this year’s HDIM had an “improved atmosphere” due (it was asserted) to the efforts by both governments and NGOs to find solutions to problems rather than casting blame. As at past HDIMs, some sessions generated such strong interest that the time allotted was insufficient to accommodate all those who wished to contribute to the discussion. For example, the session on freedom of the media was severely constrained, with more than 20 individuals unable to take the floor in the time allotted, and several countries unable to exercise rights of reply. Conversely, some sessions – for example, the session on equal opportunity for men and women, and the session on human dimension activities and projects – had, in terms of unused time available, an embarrassment of riches. Following a general pattern, Turkmenistan was again not present at the HDIM sessions this year.(4) In all, 53 participating States were represented at the meeting. At the closing session, the United States raised issues of particular concern relating to Turkmenistan under the “any other business” agenda item. (This is the sixth year in a row that the United States has made a special statement about the situation in Turkmenistan, a country that some view as having the worst human rights record in the OSCE.) For the past two years, there has been a new government in Turkmenistan. The U.S. statement this year noted some positive changes, but urged the new government to continue the momentum on reform by fully implementing steps it already has begun. In addition, the United States called for information on and access to Turkmenistan’s former representative to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev. Berdiev, once Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the OSCE, was reportedly among the large number of people arrested following an attack on then-President Niyazov’s motorcade in 2002. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown. OSCE PA President João Soares addressed the closing plenary, the most senior Assembly official to participate in an HDIM meeting. The Russian-Georgian Conflict With the outbreak of armed violence between Russia and Georgia occurring only two months earlier, the war in South Ossetia would have seemed a natural subject for discussion during the HDIM. As a human rights forum, the meeting was unlikely to serve as a venue to debate the origins of the conflict, but there were expectations that participants would engage in a meaningful discussion of the human dimension of the tragedy and efforts to stem ongoing rights violations. As it turned out, this view was not widely shared by many of the governments and NGOs participating in the meeting. The opening plenary session foreshadowed the approach to this subject followed through most of the meeting. Among the senior OSCE officials, only High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek squarely addressed the situation in the south Caucasus. Vollebaek condemned the19th century-style politicization of national minority issues in the region and the violation of international borders. At the time of the crisis, he had cautioned against the practice of “conferring citizenship en masse to residents of other States” (a reference to Russian actions in South Ossetia) and warned that “the presence of one's citizens or ‘ethnic kin’ abroad must not be used as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States.” Sadly, that sound advice went unobserved in Georgia, but it is still applicable elsewhere in the OSCE region.(5) The statement delivered by France on behalf of the countries of the European Union failed to address the conflict. During the plenary, only Norway and Switzerland joined the United States in raising humanitarian concerns stemming from the conflict. In reply, the head of the Russian delegation delivered a tough statement which sidestepped humanitarian concerns, declaring that discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity was now “irrelevant.” He called on participating States to adopt a pragmatic approach and urged acknowledgment of the creation of the new sovereign states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, terming their independence “irreversible” and “irrevocable.” Perhaps more surprising than this Russian bluster was the failure of any major NGO, including those who had been active in the conflict zone collecting information and working on humanitarian relief, to take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of South Ossetia during the opening plenary. As the HDIM moved into its working sessions, which cover the principal OSCE human dimension commitments, coverage of the conflict fared better. The Representative on Freedom of the Media remarked, in opening the session on free speech and freedom of the media that, for the first time in some years, two OSCE participating States were at war. During that session, he and other speakers called on the Russian Federation to permit independent media access to occupied areas to investigate the charges and counter-charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The tolerance discussion included calls by several delegations for Russia to cooperate and respond favorably to the HCNM’s request for access to South Ossetia to investigate the human rights situation in that part of Georgia. Disappointingly, during the session devoted to humanitarian commitments, several statements, including those of the ODHIR moderator and EU spokesperson, focused narrowly on labor conditions and migration, and failed to raise concerns regarding refugees and displaced persons, normally a major focus of this agenda item and obviously relevant to the Georgia crisis. Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation. One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task. In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters. Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have. Beyond Warsaw The relative quiet of the HDIM notwithstanding, French President M. Nicolas Sarkozy put a spotlight on OSCE issues during the course of the meeting. Speaking at a conference in Evian, France, on October 8, he responded to a call by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, issued in June during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for a new “European Security Treaty” to revise Europe’s security architecture – a move seen by many as an attempt to rein in existing regional security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE. President Sarkozy indicated a willingness to discuss Medvedev’s ideas, but argued they should be addressed in the context of a special OSCE summit, which Sarkozy suggested could be held in 2009. The escalating global economic crisis was also very much on the minds of participants at the HDIM as daily reports of faltering financial institutions, plummeting markets, and capital flight promoted concerns over implications for the human dimension. Several delegations voiced particular concern over the possible adverse impact on foreign workers and those depending on remittances to make ends meet. Looking Ahead The human rights and humanitarian concerns stemming from the war in South Ossetia will likely come into sharper focus in the lead up to the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki as talks on the conflict resume in Geneva, and OSCE and other experts attempt to document the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting and current conditions. The coming weeks can also be expected to bring renewed calls for an overhaul of the human dimension and the ODIHR by those seeking to curb attention paid to human rights and subordinate election monitoring activities. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan will fulfill the commitments it made a year ago in Madrid to undertake meaningful reforms by the end of this year. There is also the risk that a deepening economic crisis will divert attention elsewhere, even as the resulting fallout in the human dimension begins to manifest itself. It is unclear what priorities the Greek chairmanship will be set for 2009, a year that portends peril and promise. Notes (1) OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings are held every year, unless there is a Summit. Summits of Heads of State or Government are preceded by Review Conferences, which are mandated to review implementation of all OSCE commitments in all areas (military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension). (2) Helsinki Document 1992, The Challenges of Change, IV (16). (3) Interestingly, at the session on human rights and counterterrorism, moderator Zbigniew Lasocik, member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, noted that Poland’s Constitutional Court had, the previous day, struck down a 2004 law that purported to allow the military to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft – even if they were being used as weapons like the planes that killed thousands of people on 9/11. The Court reportedly reasoned that shooting down an aircraft being used as bomb would infringe on the constitutional protection of human life and dignity of the passengers. (4) Turkmenistan sent a representative to the HDIM in 2005 for the first time in several years. While responding to criticism delivered in the sessions, the representative appeared to focus more on monitoring the activities of Turkmen NGOs participating in the meeting. Turkmenistan subsequently complained that certain individuals who had been charged with crimes against the State should not be allowed to participate in OSCE meetings. Turkmenistan officials did not participate in the 2006 or 2007 HDIMs. Participation in the 2008 meeting would have been a welcome signal regarding current political developments. (5) The HCNM had previously expressed concern regarding Hungary’s overreach vis-a-vis ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. In 2004, Hungary held a referendum on extending Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad – an idea that still holds political currency in some quarters of Hungary – but the referendum failed due to low voter turnout.

  • The Role of OSCE Institutions in Advancing Human Rights and Democracy

    This hearing discussed the role of OSCE institutions in advancing human rights and democracy, highlighting the role of the United States. The United States was mentioned as a leading force of democracy promotion and protection of human rights. However, the witnesses mentioned certain issues like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition flights, and detention centers that suggest double-standards. The discussion centered on the importance of inclusive voice in government and the need to find a way to build pluralism into single-party developing democracies by establishing political parties that can be competitive, that can be critical of governments and that can bring new ideas and fresh faces into their government.

  • OSCE 101: Briefing for Civil Society

    Please join the U.S. Helsinki Commission for OSCE 101: BRIEFING FOR CIVIL SOCIETY Thursday, September 4, 2008  10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.  Rayburn House Office Building  B318 For those in need of a refresher course and those interested in becoming involved. Learn about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Role of Civil Society For those planning to travel to Warsaw, Poland, remember to register to participate in the OSCE’s Annual Human Rights Meeting: What: Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) When: September 29 – October 10, 2008 Where: Warsaw, Poland Why: Annual 2-week human rights conference What is the HDIM? The term "human dimension" describes the set of norms and activities related to human rights, the rule of law, and democracy that are regarded within the OSCE as one of the three pillars of its comprehensive security concept, along with the politico-military and the economic and environmental dimensions. Every year in Warsaw, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes a two-week conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is a forum where OSCE participating States discuss the implementation of human dimension commitments that were adopted by consensus at prior OSCE Summits or Ministerial Meetings. These commitments are not legally binding norms; instead, they are politically binding - a political promise to comply with the standards elaborated in OSCE documents. Follow-up meetings to review the implementation of the commitments are based on the principle that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state concerned. A comprehensive, 2-volume compilation of the OSCE human dimension commitments (available in English and in Russian) can be ordered free of charge through the ODIHR website: Volume 1: Thematic Compilation and Volume 2: Chronological Compilation.

  • Georgians Return to Polls to Elect New Parliament as Political Polarization Persists

    By Ronald J. McNamara and Orest Deychakiwsky For the second time this year, Georgians went to the polls in national elections, casting ballots on May 21, 2008, for a new slimmed down 150–seat unicameral parliament, known as the Supreme Council, with half filled through proportional party lists and the other by single-mandate districts. Previous parliaments comprised 235 members. Timing of the parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for fall 2008, became a contentious issue late last year as violence erupted on the streets of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, leading to early presidential elections and a plebiscite on when to hold the parliamentary contest. Incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili was reelected president in the January 5 election, narrowly escaping a second round. According to final results reported by the Central Election Commission, Saakashvili won 53.47 percent of the vote, with 70 percent of those casting ballots supporting the holding of early parliamentary elections. On March 21, the president called for the elections to be held in two months time. Mr. João Soares of Portugal, a Vice-President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly at the time, was appointed as Special Coordinator of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office to lead short-term observers of the OSCE’s International Election Observation Mission (IEOM). In all, the OSCE fielded over 550 observers from 48 countries, including a parliamentary component of over 100 drawn from the OSCE PA, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the NATO PA. International observers, including two members of the Helsinki Commission staff, participated in an extensive program of briefings in Tbilisi prior to election day, including presentations by the ODIHR Core Team and the Central Elections Commission as well as a wide range of international and domestic NGO experts. Observers also heard from representatives of most of the political parties and blocs fielding candidates: Georgian Politics, the Republic Party, the Rights Alliance, the Labor Party, the United National Movement – for Victorious Georgia, the Georgian Union of Sportsmen, the United Opposition bloc, the All Georgian National Party of Radical Democrats, the Christian-Democratic Movement, and Our Country. In all, nine political parties and three blocs were registered for the parliamentary contest, including the newly formed Christian-Democratic Movement. In all, IEOM observer teams visited nearly 1,500 of the country’s 3,641 polling stations on election day. Helsinki Commission staff observed in the Marneuli Rayon, south of Tbilisi, a predominately Azeri region bordering on neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to the 2002 national census, the Azeri minority constituted 6.5 percent of Georgia’s population. This rural agricultural region comprises the District Election Commission 22, with 84 individual polling stations for slightly over 90,000 registered voters. Interest in observing in the Marneuli region was based in part on irregularities observed during the January 2008 presidential election. Several polling stations, at that time, registered voter turnouts in excess of 100 percent, with over 88 percent of the vote going to Saakashvili, exceptionally high when compared with other districts in that part of the country. Commission staff observed an opening and the voting in nearly a dozen individual polling stations throughout the rayon, or county. Among those sites visited was the area’s largest military installation, where soldiers lined up to cast their votes as senior officers chatted outside of the station. With a few exceptions, the balloting was conducted in an orderly manner and in line with CEC procedures. An exception was a polling station close to the Armenian border in which pandemonium prevailed and a number of serious irregularities were observed by the team. Conspicuously, ballots at the station and other voting materials lacked the required serial numbers. Domestic party observers were vocally protesting procedural problems at the station as one from their ranks was repeatedly rebuffed by the precinct chairman when the observer sought to lodge a formal written complaint in the official journal. Local police were called to the scene, though they stayed at a distance as long as the Helsinki Commission team was present. The closing and tabulation observed at another station proceeded smoothly, with good cooperation among the poll workers. The following day, on May 22, Soares held a press conference in Tbilisi to issue a statement of preliminary conclusions on behalf of the IEOM: “Overall, these elections clearly offered an opportunity for the Georgian people to choose their representatives from amongst a wide array of choices. The authorities and other political stakeholders made efforts to conduct these elections in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments. The International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) identified a number of problems which made this implementation uneven and incomplete.” Addressing a protest rally on May 26, Levan Gachechiladze, the leader of the United Opposition called for annulment of the election results. “We will not let a handful of criminals run the country,” he told supporters. Fellow opposition leader Davit Gamkrelidze told the crowd, “I have no right to enter a parliament that is the product of illegality, terror, and an illicit government. I cannot become a member of a parliament that is illegitimate, unlawful, and which is a product of Soviet-style elections.” On June 5, the Central Election Commission issued a release summarizing the elections results. According to the CEC, four political parties passed the 5 percent threshold based on the proportional system: United National Movement (59.18%), or 48 seats, the United Opposition (17.73%), 15 seats, Christian-Democrat (8.66%) and the Labor Party (7.44%), 6 seats each. The results of single-mandate contests were: 71 seats for the United National Movement, 2 seats for the United Opposition, and 2 for the Republican Party. In total, the United National Movement won 119 seats, a constitutional majority. The United Opposition leadership moved quickly to request the cancellation of the mandates for seats won by the party, precluding individuals lower on their list from occupying the seats. Four of those elected, however, broke ranks with their leaders, refusing to relinquish their seats. The Labor party chose to neither cancel nor occupy their seats in parliament. Meanwhile, the Christian-Democratic party positioned itself to foster unity among the small group of non-UNM members. Results for Marneuli showed overwhelming support for the ruling UNM, with 84.49%, far exceeding the level for the country as a whole. The only other party to pass the threshold in the region was the United Opposition, with 6.79%. Similar lopsided tallies favoring the UNM were recorded in six other regions, notably the predominately Armenian Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, where support for the ruling party surpassed 90 percent. Traditionally, areas of Georgia with high concentrations of ethnic minorities, such as these, have turned out in large numbers, voting overwhelmingly for whatever the ruling party was at the time. The newly-elected parliament held its inaugural session on June 7. In remarks before the new parliament, President Saakashvili acknowledged the challenges facing the country’s elected leadership, “The entire world is looking at Georgia today. The Georgian people have overcome the most difficult political crisis last autumn at the expense of democratic consolidation. We have managed to overcome the political crisis with the help of democratic institutions, to solve all problems through peaceful democratic methods.” He continued, “our obligation is to make our compatriots feel that they are represented in the country’s governance; even the smallest group should feel that it has the right to be represented in the country’s governance, in making decisions about the future of our country.” Saakashvili concluded by stressing the importance of undertaking further reforms and fostering unity. In testimony before Congress several weeks after the elections, Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, remarked, “Georgian democracy continues to lack a necessary element – a credible and viable opposition – and the United National Movement and the United Opposition share the blame for this shortcoming. Without a viable opposition, an empowered, independent parliament and strong, credible judiciary, and a reform process that respects dissenting voices, democracy will not be consolidated.” While political polarization persists in the country, it was less palpable at the time of the parliamentary elections than in January, when there were widespread concerns that the violent street clashes of November could be reignited. Heightened tensions over the breakaway region of Abkhazia and the possibility of war erupting with Russia following the April 20 shoot down of an unmanned aerial vehicle by a Russian fighter over Georgian airspace seemed to trump domestic political squabbling in the lead up to the parliamentary elections. Overcoming political turmoil and polarization in the country takes on even greater importance in the face of ever-growing Russian threats and provocative actions undermining Georgia’s territorial integrity. The Georgian authorities should build upon the reforms instituted in electoral laws and procedures prior to the parliamentary elections. A lingering concern that deserves attention is the low confidence among voters regarding the electoral process and skepticism regarding the role of the international community. Similarly, allegations of campaign irregularities from recent elections, including use of administrative resources by the ruling party; campaigning by state officials; intimidation of state workers, especially teachers; pressure on businesses to make campaign “donations”; unbalanced television coverage on private stations; ruling party dominance of elections commissions; and lingering errors on voters lists should be taken seriously and dealt with by the authorities. These and other concerns are discussed in greater detail in the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued by the IEOM on May 22, 2008. A final report on the May 21 parliamentary elections is expected to be released by the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights shortly.

  • Guantanamo Detainees after Boumediene: Now What?

    The hearing reviewed the detainee-related policy issues – particularly for Guantanamo detainees -- that remain in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Boumediene. Witnesses also had the opportunity to discuss a related question: what does Europe do with its terror suspects, and are there any lessons for the United States from the European experience? The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Boumediene v. Bush that foreign terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility have the right under the Constitution to challenge their detention in a U.S. civilian court.

  • Ingushetia: The New Hot Spot in Russia’s North Caucasus

    John Finerty, staff advisor at the Commission, led this briefing on the increased destabilization in the North Caucasus region of Russia, specifically in Ingushetia. After the conclusion of the second Chechen war, the North Caucasus region was once again experiencing an increase in violence.  Although the entire region was fraught with instability, Ingushetia attracted particular attention, having undergone a rise in terrorist and counter-terrorist operations, illegal detentions, kidnappings and extra judicial executions over the past year.  Panelists – Eliza Musaeva, Gregory Shvedov, and Magomed Mutsolgov -described Ingushetia’s history and the arbitrary lack of rule of law that had originated in Chechnya and crept into Ingushetia. They highlighted the prolific kidnappings in the regions that were specifically Chechnya related, which led to Ingushetia being talked about as a republic of its own.  Since then, the Russian government had conducted counterterrorism operations, leading the panelists to speculate about the potential for another war in the North Caucasus. 

  • Combating Sexual Exploitation of Children: Strengthening International Law Enforcement Cooperation

    The hearing examined current practices for sharing information among law enforcement authorities internationally and what concrete steps can be taken to strengthen that cooperation to more effectively investigate cases of sexual exploitation of children, including child pornography on the Internet. Despite current efforts, sexual exploitation of children is increasing globally. The use of the Internet has made it easier for pedophiles and sexual predators to have access to child pornography and potential victims. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Combating Child Exploitation Act of 2008 (S.1738), which will allocate over one billion dollars over the next eight years to provide Federal, state, and local law enforcement with the resources and structure to find, arrest, and prosecute those who prey on our children.

  • The Challenges To Minority Communities in Kosovo

    This hearing, chaired by the Hon. Alcee Hastings and Hon. Benjamin Cardin, saw Ambassador Knut Vollebaek of Norway, High Commissioner for National Minorities of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) testify before the Commission. The hearing focused on the protection and promotion of the rights of Serb, Romani and other minority communities in Kosovo, in light of the February 17 declared independence which Serbia does not recognize. In particular, the hearing examined Ambassador Vollebaek’s work regarding Kosovo and his recommendations for action by the Kosovar authorities as well as by Serbia, other OSCE States and the OSCE itself.

  • Hate in the Information Age

    The briefing provided an overview of hate crimes and hate propaganda in the OSCE region, focusing on the new challenges posed by the internet and other technology. Mischa Thompson led the panelists in a discussion of the nature and frequency of hate crimes in the OSCE region, including the role of the internet and other technologies in the training, recruiting, and funding of hate groups. Panelists - Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Mark A. Potok, Christopher Wolf, Tad Stahnke – discussed how best to combat hate crimes and hate propaganda and highlighted internet governance issues in the United States and Europe and how the internet extensively contributes to hate propaganda. Issues such as free speech and content control were at the center of the discussion.

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